Out of the Wild

If you are just finding this Siberia story you might want to start reading it from the beginning, this first post. Otherwise…I previously left off as we paddled away from Varvarinskiy, fully stocked with new food supplies but several days behind schedule.

Happy to have reached the River Vitim

Later that same day we hit our next big milestone which was the confluence of the river we were on (the Vitimkan) with the Vitim river, the large river we were always aiming for that we would follow to our finish line, which somehow seemed to be getting further and further away. We had high hopes that once we hit the Vitim the water levels might be higher and thus faster and that we would be able to make up for some lost time. This was not the case.

Our hopes for faster waters shattered, we realized that if we were going to have any chance of making it to Romanovka it was going to be if we pushed ourselves even harder and faster, so that is what we did. Our days became occupied with constant analysis of our progress, and this progress was constantly disappointing. Our routine was to wake up, waste no time in breaking camp, eat a hasty breakfast, pack the boats, and then jump in. Once on the water we would essentially paddle full power with a couple short snack breaks and maybe a 45 min lunch break until the sun was almost down and it was time to look for a camp spot. There was no time for relaxation, or any exploration of the surrounding wilderness that did not serve to get us further downstream.

There were specific forces working against us that we constantly had to fight off, endure, or at times simply submit to. Mostly it was just the long stretches of flat motionless water that we called “pancakes” which separated the occasional whitewater. The slow motionless water resisted our paddle strokes with pure malice. It seems unreal that we could paddle as hard as we did only to feel the boats move like sponges through a giant pool of maple syrup, which is exactly what it looked like. There was nothing more disappointing than coming around a bend to see a kilometer or two of dark maple syrup shining motionless in the sun, and there is nothing you can do but dig your paddles in and slog through it.

Pancakes and maple syrup

Sometimes it was rain we had to deal with, in general we had spotty weather and lower than normal temperatures. If the rain wasn’t so bad we would just paddle through it, other times it just made more sense to stop and wait out the harder rainfalls. And maybe even  more frustrating than the flat water and the rain was the wind. When we faced a headwind it was as if no matter how hard we paddled it always felt like we were dragging a bunch of dead weight behind us. Ahhh wait…we WERE dragging a bunch of dead weight behind us! Idiot Two was still dragging Idiot One behind it, in all it’s exceptionally hydrodynamic glory.

On that topic…for several days we had been pooling our collective genius to sharpen the point on an new plan that we believed might just get us out of this mess and propel us literally and figuratively towards our goal. There came the day when apparently we felt we had debated the intricacies of the plan enough that it was time to put it into action. We called the plan “Idiot Three”.

The idea was that maybe it would be faster if we unloaded some of the weight from Idiot Two onto Idiot One and exchanged that extra weight for an idiot. Thus making Idiot One essentially a cargo ship and making Idiot Two… yes, Idiot Three.  

Three Idiots, preparing for Idiot Three

So on a particularly windy day three idiots decided to pull the trigger on Idiot Three and implement the plan. It was tricky because with three of us on the same kayak sitting so close together we had to synchronize our paddle strokes so that we paddled in unison, otherwise our paddles would collide with each other. This coordination and its resulting failures, as one may imagine, added the potential to earn many extra idiot points, which we racked up in spades. And on top of it all, it just didn’t work. It didn’t add any speed whatsoever to our pace.

Idiot Three

“One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain’t nothin’ can beat teamwork.” – Edward Abbey

Aside from these struggles we were also paying close attention to an infection that seemed to be inhabiting Tyler’s foot…an infection that looked frighteningly similar to the infection that he got the last time he decided to take some time off work and join me on one of my adventures in the Amazon. That time it landed him 5 days in a Colombian hospital.

There was also one rather technical rapid that we had to pass through. Our guru Valentine had written about it and Andrei the photographer hermit had also warned us about it. It was called the Mariktinskiy rapids and had the potential to turn our entire adventure upside down along with our kayaks. It was a couple hundred meters of fast water completely littered with large boulders that we would have to nimbly avoid colliding with. We had it marked on our GPS so we knew it was coming and had time to stop before, do a little bit of scouting, button down the hatches and get ourselves properly suited up. It was an exciting little run and we got through it without any major damage done.

Getting suited up for the big rapids

Aside from all this we just enjoyed the whole experience for what it was. The scenery was still amazing and diverse, occasional rocky cliffs giving way to rolling hills and taiga. Unfortunately though the wildlife was still strangely missing from the picture. Still not a single siting of anything more than a squirrel since the siting of our royal moose on the first day. We did however come across some large paw-prints on the beach of one of our campsites which we can only imagine came from wolves.

We also started to have some luck with fishing. All of a sudden we started getting hits. We reeled in a few fish within a couple hours. This added a welcome new element to our daily routine but unfortunately we were so hard pressed to keep on schedule we just didn’t have much time to devote to fishing.

So it was that the day came when we were on schedule to reach the tiny outpost of Ust’ Jalinda, about the same size as Varvarinskiy. Also cut off from the outside world. Only about 70km as the crow flies from our goal of Romanovka, it is impossible to reach by any 4×4 vehicle.

By this point Tyler had to be in Romanovka in exactly 5 days. At the pace we were going (still 270 kilometers on the river to go) we were exactly 7.5 days from Romanovka. The plan to solve this problem was to find someone in Ust’ Jalinda who had a boat with a motor on it and pay them to motor us downstream for one day to get us back on schedule, or even better a bit ahead of schedule so we could slow our roll a bit and take things at a more leisurely pace.

Ust Jalinda off in the distance

The town sat a half kilometer from the riverbank so I stayed with the kayaks while Tyler and Bartek wandered into town to buy our way out of this mess. What they found out was that somehow, despite the fact that this town exists at the confluence of two different rivers, in the middle of nowhere, there was not one person in the town who owned any sort of buoyant motorized mode of transportation. BUT, we were in luck. Why? Because once a month the government subsidized public transportation that links Ust’ Jalinda with Romanovka makes the 7.5 hour journey overland, and coincidentally it leaves tomorrow and there happens to be three seats left.  Siberian public transportation?

We had already used airplanes, cars, horses, and kayaks to get to where we were. It was only logical that we would end up in a tank. Right?

We didn’t want to get off the river, but at this point we had no choice but to jump on this opportunity. It was physically impossible for Tyler to get to Romanovka at the pace we were going. So adaptability became the name of the game and we decided to accept the tank ride and then once in Romanovka see what could be done as far as arranging someone with a boat or a tank with whom we could work out some way to get us back on the river for a few more days but still make it back again to Romanovka for Tyler’s flight.

Local Buryat woman watching as they loaded up the tank

The tank left at 7am the next morning. We set our alarms for 5:00 thinking it would give us plenty of time to break down the tents and get things packed. In true idiot fashion we did not realize until we were halfway through packing that we had crossed a time zone sometime in the previous days and that it was already 6:30. We were about to miss our only ticket out of here which had been handed to us on a silver plate. Somehow we managed a wild scramble to get ourselves to the village with all our gear just a few minutes after 7.

We met our “driver” Sergei who looked like he had wrestled a few bears in his day but he had a friendly disposition. We paid the man and piled into the back of the tank along with the other passengers, a couple teenage girls, a 4 year old, a baby, an old man, and a few women. Then we rumbled off into the taiga.

The bone rattling journey took 7.5 hours during which children vomited and diesel fuel mysteriously pooled up around our feet. We stopped for a couple breaks to relieve ourselves, pick berries, and test the tank’s sea legs.  

Sergei our driver

Sergei dropped us off in town center. Romanvoka, with a population of a few thousand people and a (dirt) road that actually connects it with the outside world, Romanovka had become a bit of a Shangri-La in our imaginations. Surely we would find hot water flowing from golden

Our roommate

shower heads and toilets where one would not have to worry about finding 20 mosquito bites on their ass after finishing up.

The reality was there was no guesthouse in the town at all, but a nice Buryat woman who owned a shop offered to let us roll our sleeping pads out on the floor of an empty room next to her little general store, we would just need to share it with the night guard, this guy. Sure. He looks harmless.

We threw our bags down and asked where we might find a shower. There was no shower. No problem, maybe just point us in the direction of the sink so we could wash up a bit. No….no sink. Water? We were pointed in the direction of the Vitim river which sat a hundred meters away. The toilet was an outhouse behind the shop. Ok. So we still had not reached “civilization”, but it really was a Shangri-La in its own way. There was cold beer, hot coffee, and people watching. We indulged in all of these and then sat down on the floor to take stock of our situation.

First order of business was to take advantage of our connectivity (our phones worked here) and check the weather forecast for the next days on every possible weather site we could find. The

Downtown Romanovka

consensus among all of them was terrible, low temperatures, and rain all day and night for the next 4 days. Then there was Tyler’s foot, which was still swollen up like a balloon and while we had managed to keep it from getting any worse it was not getting any better either.

Bartek and I were supposed to continue on from here and do another 500 kilometers on the river. But with the weather forecast the way it was and our pathetic pace, we would be hard pressed to reach the end goal on time (there was no option really to just do a part of it because there was no way “out” aside from the one small plane that would leave from the village 500km downriver.)  Mostly it was just the thought of getting back in the boat knowing we would have nothing but grey cold wet weather for at least the next 4 days, there is just nothing pleasureable in that. All this coupled with general exhaustion from our no-rest full-on pace and a feeling that we had lived one hell of an adventure already was enough to lead us towards what would probably be the smartest decision these idiots would make on the whole trip….to throw in the towel.

Romanovka looking over the River Vitim

It had been an insanely wild adventure. It seems like months had passed since Vlad drove us to Rambo’s wild-west compound where we downed vodka shots to appease the spirits, since we had crossed rivers, mountain passes, and endless bogs on horseback, since our first unsteady days in the boats learning the ropes, since tea with Andrei the hermit photographer, since arriving in the rain in Varvarinskiy like ghosts emerging from the closet to surprise the locals with our presence. Each campsite we stayed at along the way was unique and each one held the stories of the day that had passed, stories which we re-lived over a blazing fire surrounded by our wet gear, our kayaks on the shore nearby turned bottom up, as if the moonlight would help to dry the glue on the freshly patched holes created by that day’s micro catastrophes. And then we reached our (new) finish line by tank…go figure.

So what did we learn in all this? That experience should not be underrated, but that inexperience should not be over-dramatised. Valentine’s footsteps were hard to follow in our freshly minted shoes, but our total lack of experience never felt like an obstacle that could not be overcome.  Sometimes you just have to throw yourself into the deep end to learn how to swim.  Speaking of the deep end…I can’t wait to see what the sailing enthusiasts say when I post in their forum my plans to sail from Spain to Papua New Guinea.

There are a lot more photos (also some with commentary of other stories). To check them out click on this link: https://photos.app.goo.gl/54aUbrJumQ6fp2V78



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